The roguelike might be the most niche subgenre of role playing games, despite it also being one of the oldest (Rogue was released in 1980). The mechanics of a roguelike are straightforward and involve exploring dungeons one step at a time while the enemies move only as often as you do. The dungeons are randomly generated and divided up into floors, with each floor being slightly more difficult than the one before it. Roguelikes can be incredibly addicting, as they typically offer a perfect curve of challenge and reward. So why isn’t the genre more popular?
To be perfectly blunt, roguelikes are very, very difficult. Though that is part of why the games are so rewarding to play for genre enthusiasts, for the rest of the gaming population, there is simply too much frustration, especially when it comes to permadeath. It doesn’t help that roguelikes are often quite barebones experiences, with simple presentations and little in the way of storyline content.
There have been several attempts over the years to make roguelikes more accessible and interesting to a wider variety of gamers such as the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games that combined a popular franchise with roguelike mechanics. Unfortunately, they were not critically acclaimed games by any means, even if they managed to sell enough to keep the series alive. Despite combining a roguelike with one of the most popular franchises in the history of video games, roguelikes remained niche.
Sadly, that is pretty much business as usual for the genre. It is rare for a roguelike to achieve much success with critics, even while being significantly praised by fans. The better roguelikes are indie gems that are rarely covered by video game press such as Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup and Brogue. I wish I could go into more detail on those games, but I am more of an occasional visitor to roguelikes than a diehard fan. Besides, I’ve been looking for a roguelike that can reach the masses; one with a strong storyline and an interesting setting that is more accessible and less frustrating than the average representation of the genre while also providing enough depth for the hardcore fans. I’m happy to say that I’ve found it.
A roguelike for all RPG fans
The Guided Fate Paradox by Nippon Ichi Software (NA release date: November 5th, 2013) was not a game on my radar. I’ll be honest; I didn’t even know it existed until I received a copy of the game for review purposes. When I first booted it up I was immediately drawn in by the storyline, characters and presentation. It definitely had a bit of that Disgaea charm to it as I watched the introductory sequences play out. The more I watched the more I knew that this was a game I wanted to play from start to finish, just for the sake of the storyline. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a roguelike!
As I took my first steps through the dungeon, I felt a strong sense of worried anticipation. Was I beginning a journey into 100 floors of painful death and frustration? Before I could think about that too much, I was distracted by the fact that I was not alone. I had an A.I. controlled companion with me who could be equipped just like my own character. It seemed this adventure would not be as lonely as most roguelikes.
Soon the first floor was cleared, and I was shown a story sequence. This happened again as I cleared the 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors. I had never played a roguelike with such a strong focus on the storyline! Every time I cleared a floor, I got to watch more of the story unfold. This definitely helped alleviate any sense of tedium normally associated with the genre.
By this time I had acquired a full set of gear, and it was odd to say the least. I don’t remember exactly what I had equipped; I just remember it being a bizarre combination of things. Beyond the usual weapons like swords and spears, The Guided Fate Paradox has an immense variety of odd objects that can be equipped, like a plug knuckle that looked similar to an electrical plug and a cursed hand that looked like it was chopped off of a zombie. Between that, the mermaid legs (fins) and a gas mask, all of which were displayed in detail on my character, you can imagine it looked quite odd. Still, it added a fun factor to the game that I really appreciated.
It gets better though: each equipped piece of gear adds a skill to the character’s arsenal. There are defensive, offensive and utility skills, and putting together a decent combination is part of the appeal of The Guided Fate Paradox. You may look ridiculous, but at least you can kick some ass! The offensive skills are particularly interesting because they have a variety of ranges, and some of them can strike multiple enemies if they happen to be in the right position. There are also dual wielding skills for when you are able to equip similar weapons in both hands. There’s a lot more to this roguelike than just punching adjacent enemies.
By the time I reached the 5th floor, the enemies were not giving me too much trouble. But I just had a feeling that a few floors further down I would reach some kind of horrible trap or combination of enemies that would end my journey, and then what would happen? Would I lose everything and have to start over?
Level 1… again.
Then something strange and brilliant happened. I cleared the 5th floor and instead of reaching the 6th floor, I instead saw a victory screen. Safe! That wasn’t so bad, was it? Now it turns out, had I died, I certainly would have lost all the gear I was carrying on me. Such is the penalty for failure in roguelikes. It’s also traditional in roguelikes that when you enter a dungeon, your character starts at level 1 no matter what. This is also true in The Guided Fate Paradox. On that victory screen I witnessed all the levels that I had earned get taken away and added to a “stored levels” count.
If you’re familiar with the Disgaea series you might be aware of the stored levels your characters maintain after reincarnation and returning to level 1, and the “base stats” that determine their growth as they level up that are increased according to the number of stored levels. In The Guided Fate Paradox, every single level you gain is added to a grand total of stored levels, whether or not you survive your trip into the dungeon. Like in Disgaea, as the number of stored levels increases, so do your character’s base stats. As a result, despite starting at level 1 every single time you enter the dungeon your character is actually becoming more and more powerful.
In terms of making roguelikes more accessible, utilizing stored levels is an incredibly smart idea. Even if a trip into the dungeon ends in failure, the player can know that they got a little bit stronger. Instead of loading an earlier save file in order to recover the lost gear and abandoning all the time spent and lost, a player might accept that loss knowing that their character still gained strength.
There are other methods of long term character growth as well. When used extensively, weapons and gear eventually “burst” which reduces their stats by half. Bursted gear can later be strengthened or combined with other similar items, and will be better than new as a result. Better yet, they can be protected from loss by assigned them to “summoned sets,” which can be summoned into the dungeon temporarily and will not be lost if a dungeon run ends in failure. Basically if the player becomes particularly attached a piece of gear, the summoned sets are the perfect place for it to go. The other good thing about bursting gear is that doing so provides the player with icons representing the various stats. These icons can be placed on a sort of checkerboard to increase the character’s base stats, and higher quality items provide icons with higher stat values. The end result of all of this customization is not only a game with greater depth, but a roguelike where the odds can be turned in the player’s favor instead of brutally punishing the player to the point that he or she gives up entirely.
The smaller, more accessible roguelike
The next time I started the dungeon, I was able to bring some gear with me, and I left my spare gear safely back at the base so that even if I died and lost my carried gear and items, I’d still have something to equip the next time. This time around I started on the 6th floor with my character at level 1. But I was not fighting the strong enemies of the 5th floor. I was instead fighting enemies appropriate for a level 1 character with a few stored levels. This was basically an entirely different dungeon as opposed to one connected to the previous five levels. It turns out that instead of one massive dungeon, The Guided Fate Paradox has a serious of small dungeons. Each chapter of the game has ten floors, and the first few chapters divide those floors into two sections of five floors each to make things easier for beginners, which is another great way to take the bite out of roguelikes.
The other great thing about this is how different the dungeons are within each chapter. The first chapter is a fairly straightforward roguelike dungeon, but each subsequent chapter adds enough variety to keep things interesting. In one chapter there are zombies among the enemy ranks, and they come back to life several turns after being defeated unless the player throws a tombstone over them. Then there’s an underwater chapter, where the player has to navigate the ocean floor between a series of islands. My favorite is the chapter where each floor is mapped onto a cube, and there are walls up all over the place to make it a maze and holes that lead to the opposite side of the cube. Throughout the campaign, I was never bored while dungeon crawling.
Hardcore fans should play it too
Still, I can understand why a hardcore fan of the genre might wonder if this is all a little bit too easy. Stored levels, 5 and 10 floor dungeons, summoned gear sets that can’t be lost and a helpful companion? Where’s the challenge in that? Fortunately, The Guided Fate Paradox has a few optional features to make things more difficult. Again following in the footsteps of Disgaea, the player can choose to incrementally increase the enemy levels so that the game is more and more challenging. There are also optional dungeons that are 50 and 100 floors deep, including a postgame dungeon that ignores your stored levels and does not allow you to bring anything with you or utilize summoned sets. If you’re looking for a traditional roguelike experience, that’s where you will find it. I attempted it once and only got to the 5th floor, so there is plenty of difficulty there for your masochistic types to enjoy.
But whether you are a hardcore player or a newcomer to roguelikes, I truly believe that The Guided Fate Paradox has something for you. It has a strong storyline in an interesting setting, tons of features to ease the learning curve for newbies, and significant optional challenges for experienced veterans. It’s also far less tedious than the average roguelike, with its storyline sequences between floors and variety of dungeon types. It is without a doubt the most accessible roguelike I have ever played. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun and is very, very addicting. With any luck, it will help the roguelike genre reach new players.
Update: The full Gamer Horizon review of The Guided Fate Paradox is now live! Also, you might want to check out a PSP title called Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger VS Darkdeath Evilman, which could be described as the spiritual predecessor to The Guided Fate Paradox.